Psychological Scientists in the Private Sector

Social Psychology Online

By Shelly Farnham
Shelly Farnham I always thought I would take the academic route. However, I feel fortunate that circumstances led me down the path towards working as a researcher at Microsoft. While finishing my degree in social psychology at the University of Washington and contemplating my next step, I knew several people from the psychology department who left to do "usability" research at Microsoft. Usability research, which focuses on human-computer interactions and is fairly qualitative, did not appeal as a career to either the social psychologist or the scientist in me.

It turned out there were other options. A friend who completed an internship at Microsoft Research described his research project to me, and I thought 'that sounds like experimental psychology.' I was looking for a summer job at the time, so I got online, and within Microsoft Research found the Virtual Worlds Group, which studies tools and technologies to enhance online social interactions. After a few phone calls and a couple of interviews, I found myself working part-time in the Virtual Worlds Group while finishing my degree and applying for post-docs.

My first project was to conduct a study examining the impact of communication modality on trust and cooperation in a social dilemma paradigm. We found that voice communication significantly increased people's cooperative behaviors compared to text communication. My second project was to analyze data to explore the use of virtual body language in a multi-user graphical chat room. We found that people integrated their positioning information with their verbal communication to indicate direction of attention.

My third project was to develop a study examining the use of a multi-user space to provide social and informational support to cancer patients and their caregivers. This research project is currently under way through a collaborative effort with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. An important part of my job was to share the results of these studies with product groups within Microsoft, to inform product development, and to share the results through papers and conferences with the community of researchers that study human-computer interactions, computer supported cooperative work, and online behavior.

Working at the Virtual Worlds Group allowed me to explore how the principles of social psychology could be used to improve the quality of people's interactions in a whole new social realm - the online world - that is increasingly meaningful in people's lives. I found that I loved what I was doing. I was able to participate in the research process, from designing experiments to analyzing data to writing empirical articles, while being able to impact the quality of people's lives. When I was offered a full-time position within the group, I accepted.

Now my research focuses on issues of identity, trust, community, social presence, and communication in computer-mediated social interactions. My methodological background and my knowledge of social psychological principles play an important role in my current research. For example, last summer we completed a study examining the impact of identity information and communication modality on trust and cooperation. We brought pairs who did not know each other into the laboratory and had them interact in a multi-user game that was modeled after the social dilemma paradigm. Participants were randomly assigned to conditions with text or voice communication, and with or without access to each other's identity information. We found that while identity information affected ratings of liking for the other person, again it was voice that had the greatest influence on whether participants adopted a cooperative game strategy. In another set of studies, we are using principles of identity, self-presentation and impression formation to examine how people should best represent themselves in online situations.

One of the biggest challenges I have faced since working at Microsoft Research has been learning to collaborate with researchers from very different disciplines, ranging from other psychologists to sociologists to computer scientists to graphic artists. We all bring a different language to the table, with different expectations about what qualifies as research. I bring both the scientific method and the standards of ethics for research with human subjects that were central to my training. Others bring a breadth of knowledge in issues dealing with user interface design, experience in dealing with units of observations much broader than the individuals, dyads, or small groups studied by social psychologists, an ability to develop the software applications I can only imagine, and experience with other forms of research (e.g., ethnographic).

Collaborating with researchers from such a diversity of disciplines is enriching, and I have learned to respect the advantages of different approaches. The software industry as a whole is very dynamic, running at a highly accelerated pace compared to the careful steps of academia, and I enjoy working with such an energetic, creative, and intelligent group of people.

American Psychological Society
December 2000
Vol. 13, No. 10

2001 American Psychological Society
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